’s Travels Essay, Research Paper
In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift makes a satirical attack on humanity. In the final book, Swift takes a stab at humanity by simultaneously criticizing physiological, mental, and spiritual aspects of humans. Literary critics Ronald Knowles and Irvin Ehrenpreis both agree that the last book focused entirely on satirizing humanity. The Yahoo brutes that inhabit Houyhnhnm Land are a despicable species that have the physical appearance of humans. Though their behavior seems to be decadent and irrational, Swift shows that most of their behavior have parallels in the life of “civilized” humans. The Houyhnhnms seem to embody virtue and all the perfections that humans seek, but there are inconsistencies in their behavior that are reflective human faults. The Houyhnhnms do not look human in appearance, so Swift uses them to reveal hypocrisies of human thought. Throughout the book, Swift makes attacks on the religious perception of “man”; He also expresses disagreement with deist ideology. Ehrenpreis and Knowles have very similar opinions concerning Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels, but Knowles expresses a more concrete interpretation of the satire.
According to Ehrenpreis, Swift lived in John Locke’s time, and takes many ideas of humanity from him. Locke said that humans tend to classify species as “man” by their physical appearance. If there was a man without reason, he would be a dull irrational “man”, and if there was an animal could express reason, they would be an intelligent and rational “animal”. To Ehrenpreis, the Yahoos “embody an ironical reflection upon the fact that the bulk of unthinking men do in practice treat external shape as a sounder guide to humanity than reasonable conduct.” Besides being more primitive than humans, Yahoos behave and function like “civilized” humans. Knowles points out that Yahoos fight with other groups and each other without apparent reason. Their avarice for certain shiny stones of no practical use lead to more fighting and theft. In more contemporary or “civilized” societies, those “shiny stones” can be paralleled to material possessions such as jewelry. Knowles observes that like humans, Yahoos suck the juice from a particular root that produces the same affect as alcohol. Similar to many humans, the Yahoos consumed the juices without temperance. Ehrenpreis thinks that Swift uses the Yahoos to as an example of Locke’s suggestion that humans are more easily identified by vice than virtue.
The Houyhnhnms seem to be reasonable, rational characters. They also seem to embody good virtues that humans strive to achieve. Ehrenpreis and Knowles both find inconsistencies in the depiction of Houyhnhnms. Ehrenpreis believes that the paradoxes in the writing are supposed to reflect paradoxes of human thought. When Gulliver first meets the inhabitants of Houyhnhnm Land, they are curious about the covering on his body. The Houyhnhnms are surprised when they first see him take off his hat; It is a reasonable and natural reaction since the Houyhnhnms do not wear clothing. Ehrenpreis argues that repeated occurrences show that Houyhnhnm thought revolves around being a horse. He thinks that is reflective of the anthropocentricity of humans. An example of the anthropocentricity of humans is the attempt to communicate with babies. A newborn does not know any human languages, but adults often assume that the baby is trying to “talk” to them when they make meaningless noises. Knowles thinks that the Houyhnhnms are not ideal characters, but reflections of humans. If the whinny, neighing like sounds are eliminated from “Houyhnhnm”, the word “Hounum” is a jumbled pronunciation of “human”. According to Knowles, the Houyhnhnm society implies that their beliefs ore founded on self-deception. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” The Houyhnhnm language did not have negative words like “war”, “deceit”, and “evil”. By the quote above, Ludwig Wittgenstein suggests that Houyhnhnms could not have a true sense of good if they did not know what evil was. The Houyhnhnms also embody a sense of arrogance and bias that exists in humans. Their only sense of “evil” is in terms of the Yahoos. That is reflective of some governing institutions that blame others as the source of corruption and evil. Historically, groups like gypsies, Armenians, and Jews have fallen under that category of scapegoats. When the Houyhnhnms observe Gulliver, they immediately classify him as a Yahoo. By doing so, they do not act as rational creatures because they ignore the great number of differences and only observe superficial similarities. The idea of not being able to understand good without understanding evil can be explained in religious terms as well.
Throughout Book IV, there are many links to Christian ideas. Ehrenpreis thinks that Swift’s writing plays off a debate between Locke and Stillingfleet over the definition of “man”. Stillingfleet uses a Trinitarian argument that defines man as “a creature that enjoys a special ’subsistence’.” This definition is not practical because the “special subsistence” is not defined. Locke defines it as “that faculty, whereby man is supposed to be distinguished from beasts, and wherein it is evident he much surpasses them.” It seems that Swift does not support either argument, because the physical “subsistence” of man is embodied in irrational creatures, while the intellectual “subsistence” is embodied in a rational beast. Knowles shows that by giving a beast reason, Swift can point out the fallibility of Deist thought. Anthony Collins wrote, “whosoever live by reason are Christians.” Since the Houyhnhnms live by reason, then it can be implied that they are Christians. The ending of Book IV is another attack on Deist thought. The Deists thought “that every Man is bound to follow the Rules and Directions of that Measure of Reason which God hath given him… It is the mistake of wise and good men that they expect more Reason and Virtue from human nature, than taking it in the bulk, it is in any sort capable of.” When Gulliver returned to England, he measures humans by Houyhnhnm standards of reason and virtue, and becomes disappointed because he expects Yahoo brutalism. Ehrenpreis has a different interpretation of the ending. He believes that the kind of influence the Houyhnhnm’s ideal virtues had on Gulliver is similar to the strict and perfect obedience to Christian ideals as would have been done in eighteenth century society. So Swift is saying, if men did practice Christianity in such a manner, they would destroy civilization as they knew it, in the same way Gulliver destroyed his family.
Jonathan Swift uses a lot of satire in writing Gulliver’s Travels. Some of the satire is blunt and apparent. The Yahoos, with their exact likeness to humans in form, conveyed the degenerative nature of humans without civilization. At the same time, their presence also brings about the realization that even under the guise of civilization, humans are corrupt and decadent. The use of the “ideal” Houyhnhnms is deceiving. The apparent reason for using reasonable animals is to make the human-like Yahoos seem more irrational. From literary criticisms by Knowles and Ehrenpreis, it seems like the Houyhnhnms were used as objects of satire. What was not apparent, but pointed out by both critics was the fact that inconsistencies in the Houyhnhnm character are reflective of paradoxes in human thought. The only support Ehrenpreis gave was the parallel between the hippocentricity of the Houyhnhnms and the anthropocentricity of humans. Knowles used many examples from the book to support his ideas. The most subtle criticisms were made on religion. Ehrenpreis’ explanations mostly used supporting evidence from Locke. He used an argument against Trinitarianism and another on Christianity in general. Knowles’ explanation of the religious satire seemed more plausible because it was focused on Deism. He used works from many authors to first convey Deist ideals, then from examples in the book, tried to show the paradoxes.